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How Long Can They Last?


Jenny Lyons

PERCHED on the tall wooden supports of the Santa Monica Pier, the La Monica Ballroom hovers between the churning blue of the Pacific Ocean and the still blue of the sky. The ballroom's citadel-like towers jut upwards, stuccoed and gray. A succession of Spanish-style archways heralds the entrance doors to the largest dance hall on the West Coast. From the shore, they look like a neat line of miniature keyholes. When the 15,000- square foot ballroom is empty, the hard maple floor gleams. The light creaking of the wood-slatted pier and the thundering of the waves echo through the hall, hardly muted by the grand building at the end of the pier on Colorado Avenue.

On July 25, 1928, the waves sound like a whisper, drowned out by the music of a live band. As the evening hour nears 10 o’clock, three couples orbit the scuffed floor. They rock lightly back and forth, in constant motion but hanging in limbo between wakefulness and sleep. Despite the late hour, an audience sits in the seats that grace the periphery of the dance floor. For the price of five cents they watch, mesmerized by the perpetual motion of the dancers.

An amplified voice cuts through the lull of the orchestral music and the distant smashing of waves: It’s been 195 hours, folks! 195 hours! How long will these courageous young people last?
One hundred and ninety five hours before, The La Monica’s Long-Distance Dancing Contest began. Eleven thousand and seven hundred minutes before, the ballroom churned with a whirl of skirts, a shuffle of newly shined shoes, and a flourish of bright music. Eight and one-tenth days before, the young energy of the hundred couples in the room flowed and ebbed like the sporadic tide that lies hundreds of feet below them. The crowd was pulsing, eager to witness the spectacle of endurance awaiting them. Some came for the thrill of watching these young dancers persevere. Others came for the thrill of watching them fai l.

Such is the way of the dance marathon. Born out of 1920 s, the “Era of Wonderful Nonsense,” the idea of the dance marathon started with two ambitious dance teachers in England. Miss Ollie Finnerty and her partner Edgar Van Ollefin intrigued audiences with their youth and tenacity when they danced for seven hours straight on the 18th of February, 1923. In March, a young Brit named Victor Hindmarch pushed the record to twenty-five hours of continuous dancing. The first of April saw the record broken stateside when Miss Alma Cummings of New York danced for twenty-seven hours. Within weeks, marathons popped up around the country, offering cash prizes to the couple that survived the longest.  Thus began America’s love affair with the dance marathon.

As these punchy young Americans reveled in the new dance marathon fad, Santa Monica businessman Ed Conliss was raising the walls of the biggest ballroom on the West Coast. Conliss was a real estate developer and a major player in the development of the Santa Monica Pier. At one point he owned large parcels of the pier itself. He would go on to be a part of the funding committee for a major Palisades Hotel deal in 1926, and by 1929 he would be vice-chairman of the Los Angeles- Santa Monica Recreational Harbor Association. Ed Conliss was in the business of providing the public with bright, new beachfront attractions, and the La Monica Ballroom represented his grandest venture yet.

The La Monica Ballroom, New Dancing Palace, Lures to Beach!
the headline read on July 27, 1924.

The community buzzed with anticipation. For months, they watched as construction workers hauled equipment and materials down the long pier. They watched as the $250,000 ballroom grew each day, slowly pushing into the boundaries of the ocean sky. Everyone talked about the grand dance ventures that would take place there.

The La Monica Ballroom was an impressive addition to the Santa Monica skyline. Newspapers heralded it as an “Amusement Palace,” and it looked the part. Bright flags that whipped in the crisp ocean breeze decorated the graceful curves of the parapets. The ballroom was a beautiful behemoth o n the hazy ocean horizon.

On the balmy opening evening, a beaming Conliss welcomed thousands of visitors. His partners stood alongside him, accepting the shower of congratulations that rained on them over this grand new attraction.

This was to be the finest amusement resort in America! It was the talk of the evening amongst the gathered crowd. They stood on tiptoes and shuffled on the wooden slats of the pier, eager to see the shining new interior of this castle-esque hall.

When the doors finally opened, the bright tones of Don Clark and his orchestra welcomed visitors. It had been said that the rhythms of Don Clark’s music were the antidote for itching feet. This seemed to be true, as couples whirled around the new hall, swept up by the music. Among the thousands of Southern Californians who packed the hall were ladies and gentlemen of high society. Joining in the festivities, albeit in private lodges that shot off from the main hall and away from the sauntering public, they danced lightly, the men in sleek black suits and pressed ties. The ladies floated in elegant stockings and dresses, long and twinkling under the state- of- the- art lights that washed the ballroom in a delightful glow. Laughter mingled with the strains of Clark’s famous music.


Now, on this warm July night in 1928, the laughter of the rich and famous is a distant memory. Don Clark’s music has long since faded, replaced by the wheedling strains of bands that rotate every few days. The sparkling dresses of high society are a mirage. Instead the young dancers of the marathon sway back and forth in plain clothes and stockings rolled to the ankles. As the hours pass, couple after couple drop out of the race, exhausted by the constant motion, oftentimes unable to stand or stay awake a minute longer.

Only three remain.  Their feet and ankles protest the lack of rest. The pairs stand with heads bowed, their weight shifting back and forth almost imperceptibly at times.

In one corner are Norris Scott and Lucille Moore. They are the “Sweetheart Couple” of the marathon. They charm the audience with their dazzling smiles and lovebird antics, even as they wear down from hours of dancing. Norris, tall and slim, wears a plain white shirt and black slacks. With his dark hair and bright eyes he smiles down on Lucille. With her short brown hair set in finger curls, she smiles back. The hem of her sleeveless black dress swirls languidly around her knees. They stand with hands tightly clasped.

When the hour strikes 10 o’clock, the couple announces that they plan to use the prize money, a sum of $500, to wed. This sets the spectators of the event abuzz. Lucille Moore and Norris Scott are going to win! And they’re getting married!

The emcee loudly congratulates them, his voice booming on the ever-present loudspeaker. The audience cheers and fawns over the sweet young dancers.

The other couple, Dolly Seward and Ernel Pelle, scoff. They certainly did not want to wish bad luck on anyone, but if Moore and Scott were getting married, it wouldn’t be with the prize money of this marathon!

The emcee relays this message to the waiting audience. This elicits a wave of disapproving outbursts from the spectators and applause from a few supporters.

Ernel and Dolly lament the fact that the crowd’s attention has been diverted to darlings Norris and Lucille. Ernel looks somberly ahead from under a dark beret. His tall and husky frame dwarfs Dolly, who looks intently at the details of his thin tie. In her dark, knee- length dress and flat loafers, she clings to Ernel’s sweater. They plod onward.

The final couple. Carmen LaRue and James Cherry, rock slowly over the slick ballroom floor, James in his tie from the Navy, now ruffled from days of dancing, and Carmen in matching stripes and cropped brunette hair. Carmen stares listlessly ahead. James gazes into the distance and then at his partner. Carmen’s eyes are growing heavy. She blinks and shakes her head to ward off sleep. He squeezes her hand hard and lifts it to his shoulder. The pair shuffles along unnoticed as the crowd moons over Norris and Lucille. They can feel the waves pummel ing the pier beneath their tired feet.


These were the waves that once tore away at the grandeur of the La Monica Ballroom. On February 3, 1926, the La Monica stood stoic and gray against the darkening sky. Storm clouds whirled overhead, an ever-changing ceiling of shadows and vapor. As the muted light of evening faded into the deep of night, the tide crept higher. Rain pelted the pier. The waves tossed, propelled by the growing gales. The sky and sea were now black, the usual sparkle afforded by the stars masked by a thick blanket of angry clouds. The La Monica was black, too, having been abandoned hours before.

Earlier in the afternoon, the ballroom had been alive with the whir of equipment and the shouts of workers. They were carrying out the most lavish of the ballroom’s furnishings to the safety of solid ground as the ocean storm pummeled the structure from the outside. The usually muted waves roared, loudly making their presence known just below the maple floor. With one particularly angry crash from the sea below and a spectacular creaking from the wooden pier, the floor shifted beneath the men's feet. The magnificent floor bowed before their eyes. The center dropped several feet closer to the thundering surf, sending equipment and lingering furniture sliding toward the sea. The orchestra, once perched above the dance floor, melted into a sorry pit. The crew quickly clambered out from the sinking room.

It was no longer safe to salvage anything from the La Monica. The errant wave had knocked a considerable chunk of wood and cement out from under the ballroom, causing the hall floor to sag dangerously. The crew had to wait out the storm from the shore and hope for the best. Fire Chief Jackson and City Commissioner Morrison predicted that the damage to the pier would cost no less than $1,000,000.

It was a long and arduous night for owner Ed Conliss. He watched from the shore as the ocean tore away dollar after dollar of his investment in the La Monica. The storm battered on through the inky night.

The next morning, the sky was a flat palette of gray. A fine ocean mist replaced the rain. On the damp sand of the Santa Monica beach, a crowd stood packed together. Tucked into fedoras and coats, hands shoved into pockets, they stared into the distance. The shape of the La Monica loomed, blending with the dismal tones of the sky, but the familiar shape was different. The bottom of the structure, once a strong line running parallel to the ocean, sagged precariously toward the water like the swollen underbelly of some ailing creature. The pier stood exposed, missing entire legs, its foundation crumbling. Behind the crowd sat sea-soaked stacks of the pier’s pilings. In the chaos of the storm, waves had cast the unsalvageable mess of splintered wood across the soft sand. The crowd wondered if this beautiful ballroom had any hope of avoiding a watery end. They stared at the tragic spectacle before them, murmuring predictions of doom.


Inside the La Monica on that night in 1928 the three remaining couples of the Long-Distance Dance Marathon plug onwards. The crowd begins to focus on the third couple, James and Carmen. In the 195th hour of this marathon, Carmen is growing weaker and weaker. James pulls her closer, the hand on the small of her back, trying to support the stumbling girl. She rests her curl-encircled head on his shoulder, struggling to keep her eyes open.

            Hey baby! Come on! Baby! Come on!

James squeezes her hand and talks loudly into her ear. In spite of this, she falters, her small feet, in dark shoes and rolled socks, drag on the wooden floor.

The other couples turn to watch them. Ernel and Dolly press on, looking with grim expressions at their struggling peers. James frowns. Lucille and Norris rock back and forth, their perpetual smiles diminished.

            Looks like we’re about to lose another one folks! How long will she last? The sailor’s girl is looking a little groggy wouldn’t you say? Yowza!

The announcer draws the crowd's attention to James and his exhausted partner. The audience stares at the tragic spectacle before them, murmuring predictions of doom. James can see their doubting glances and hear their doubting words.

He shakes Carmen and holds her upright. He never stops dancing, despite the fact that he is almost carrying her full weight now. Carmen’s tired limbs look incongruous with her sprightly flapper hairstyle and loud sailor stripes.

As Carmen fades so, too, do James’s chances of winning $500.  James must do something, or he and his partner will be sent packing. They have danced for so long and are so close to the end. If Carmen collapses now, it will all be for nothing. James thinks of the one hundred and ninety-five hours, the eleven thousand and seven hundred minutes, the eight and one-tenth days he will have wasted teetering around a dance hall in front of leering spectators.

Carmen’s head begins to loll back as she fights a losing battle with sleep. James lets go of her hand. He draws his own heavy hand back and slaps Carmen across the face.

The smack rings out in the grand ballroom.


The La Monica would see darker hours than this. After the storm fiasco of 1926, owner Ed Conliss had repaired the sagging pier and taken the opportunity to lavishly furnish the La Monica with more modern accoutre ments. Stars and members of high society attended the opening celebration of the brighter, newer ballroom. However, the revival did not hold. With the crash of the stock market in 1929, the La Monica’s glorious popularity faded. It seemed many people did not have five cents to spare for a dance. In the throes of the Great Depression, the La Monica grew quieter and quieter. During the 1930 s the ballroom fell into bankruptcy. The now-defunct amusement palace served as the Santa Monica City Hall while the old one underwent reconstruction. The quiet bustle of office work replaced the strains of orchestral music and the excited shouts of the emcee. The wide- open dance hall was cluttered with desks and the official matters that passed over them.

On December 1st, 1936, at 10 o'clock at night, the La Monica Ballroom, now the La Monica Muncipal Auditorium, was empty. Gone were the days of young lovers and desperadoes dancing late into the night. Instead the building stood dark, quiet, locked. All of the office workers had gone home for the night. A strong sea breeze whistled between the buildings on a pier engulfed by night.

Yet, not all was dark.

In the back of the Municipal Auditorium, a red glow reached into the hazy ocean air. It breathed in the blowing wind and grew. Flames licked at the decorative maple furnishings inside and charred the stucco outside. Within minutes, the back half of the auditorium was alight. Fire devoured the sucking ocean wind, fueling its progress onward.

Sirens and whirring lights cut through the dark of Colorado Avenue as fire crews arrived on the scene. Firemen struggled with the dead weight of the fire hose. They had to drag it down the length of the slatted wooden pier. They tugged it between buildings and over steps before finally reaching the La Monica, now bright with dancing flames.

The crew won the battle after hours of strenuous firefighting on the pier, but again nature had ravaged the ballroom. The flames had marked its walls black. The owners of the pier again repaired the ballroom. This time though, there was no grand reopening. No lavish furnishings. No fancy improvements. Instead the ballroom became an office building until society man Walter Newcomb and his wife Enid bought the hall in 1942. The Newcombs converted the rickety hall into a roller rink.

It was July 16, 1962. Though the sun shone outside, the light failed to reach the interior of the massive ballroom which was blanketed with shadows. Three Santa Monica city officials slowly walked through the creaky shell of the building. They pointed the flickering beam of a flashlight toward the dusty rafters. A hole gaped from the ceiling. The 75- foot- high beams which once proudly held aloft the roof and chandeliers were splintering. Some bent horribly while others threatened to give way. Outside the grand citadel roof sagged. Two walls bulged precariously. The huge structure stood as a ghost of the palace it once was.

On January 3, 1963, the ocean air was chilly in Santa Monica. The pale stucco ballroom blended with the morning gra y. City workers had long since roped off the keyhole archways. The dark doorways yawned in the gloom.

Demolition crews made their way along Colorado Avenue toward the famed Santa Monica Pier, with its inviting neon sign. The crew cautiously moved the equipment down the long wooden promontory.

This was the last day the La Monica Ballroom would grace the Santa Monica skyline, as it had for nearly forty years. With the crashing of the waves below came the crashing of the first wall of the La Monica as workers knocked it down.


Carmen crumples to the floor, unconscious. James stands stunned on that February night in 1928.

A buzz spreads through the ballroom.

The Navy boy had slapped his partner to the floor!

James only meant to rouse Carmen from her dozing, but now she lay passed out on the floor. Dance marathoners often slap each other “out of friendliness” to ward off sleep, but this slap ends Carmen LaRue’s run in the La Monica Long-Distance Dancing Contest. Among the din of the shouting audience, the floor judge counts her out and the emcee announces this latest turn of events.

Folks, looks like our Navy Boy is without a partner! It’s all on his shoulders now! Two couples and one lonely sailor left, folks!

Medics carry Carmen away, and James is left to dance with a stand-in partner from the sidelines. The floor judges disqualify James from winning the prize money, but he is too proud to give up his fight.

Erne l and Dolly still hold one another, stone- faced in their resolve . They look mismatched next to the smiling Norris and Lucille. Erne l’s shorts- and- beret ensemble clashes with Dolly’s long- sleeved dress. Norris’s simple black slacks complement the dark pleats of Lucille’s charming dress. Dolly looks too tiny and too frail next to Ernel’s towering frame. Lucille’s head fits perfectly tucked under Norris’s resting chin. The audience members continue placing their bets on the pairs. They applaud their chosen couples on occasion over the wheedling orchestra.  Ballroom management predicts that the marathon will be over by daybreak.

The couples dance on and on.

The clock strikes 11 o’clock.

196 hours folks! 196 hours! Can you believe it? These young people have been at it for 196 hours! How much longer can they last?